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Mompreneur Builds Successful Homeowner Referral Network

What Debra Cohen started on a farm table in her basement in 1997 has blossomed and earned nearly $4 million to date.

The Long Island, N.Y., mom of two launched Home Remedies, a homeowner referral network, with $5,000 from her husband's retirement savings, a fax machine, computer and phone. She had left her job as a vice president in the media world and, at the time, was also a new mom, having recently given birth to her first daughter.

"My husband and I had just purchased our first home, and as new homeowners we quickly realized how difficult it was to find reliable home-improvement professionals. I spent many afternoons waiting for contractors who didn't show and was frustrated by contractors who gave me inflated pricing or tried to sell me on services I didn't need," Cohen tells Mom.me via email.

Those struggles, coupled with the need to simply pay the bills, led Cohen to her new business. The mom of two talked to Mom.me about her venture, as well as how she juggled motherhood in the process and her advice for moms looking to be their own boss.

MORE: My Husband Fired Me From Being a SAHM

What inspired you to take the leap and get serious about Home Remedies?

My "aha!" moment came after my husband and I discovered that we had a pregnant squirrel living in our attic. We called about three or four different contractors and paid hundreds of dollars, but she kept coming back. I finally found a pest-control specialist who explained that a pregnant squirrel will do anything to return to the place where she always gives birth. He was able to finally prevent her from coming back by driving her over a body of water, because apparently squirrels can't swim! I'm a networker by nature and was so appreciative that I asked him if he'd be interested in paying me a commission if I could get him more work. He loved the idea, and that's how Home Remedies was born. I went to work and set out to create a business plan for a service that would promote reputable contractors and help local homeowners find contractors they could trust and launched Home Remedies six months later.

What sets Home Remedies apart from other referral groups?

Home Remedies is a local, personal concierge-type service for homeowners. We're not an online lead-generation company. I personally screen each and every contractor in my network and match him/her with jobs based not only on their trade but also by location, price, availability, expertise and even personality type. Online lead-generation companies are paid for generating referrals regardless of whether or not a contractor gets a job. Contractors pay me a pre-negotiated commission, and I get paid only once a job has been completed.

Describe the moment you first felt successful with Home Remedies.

I'll never forget it. I created a direct mail campaign and sent it out to about 300 homeowners in my target markets. I had taken a part-time job at a local decorating store over the summer while my husband was off (he's a teacher) to help make ends meet. We used our personal phone line as my business line at the time to save money, and I made him answer the phone, "Home Remedies!" He called me at the store one day while I was working, about two or three days after I had sent out the campaign and said I got my first call. I couldn't believe it. I received my first commission check for $25 one week later!

As a successful female entrepreneur, what are some ways that you want to teach your daughters about "girl power"?

​I hope that I'm teaching them that through example. My two daughters have always seen me working and being successful in my career while also making them a priority. Because my first boss in Corporate America was a female entrepreneur, I don't think I've ever felt held back because I'm a female. I tell my children that you have to be creative and have a plan if you want to be a mom and have a successful career. For me, the easiest way to do that was to launch my own business so that I could define my work day and be in control of my own destiny.

I tell my children that you have to be creative and have a plan if you want to be a mom and have a successful career.

Has there been anything about building Home Remedies that has surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn't expect?

Yes! My goal was to make a few hundred dollars each month to help us stay afloat, but my business took an unexpected turn after a local paper wrote a story about my business. The article ran, and I was inundated with calls from contractors and homeowners all over Long Island, as well as a few calls from people who loved my business idea and wanted to know how they could start one in their area. I decided that rather than trying to handle all of the work on my own (with a baby at home and one on the way!), I could duplicate my business and help other people launch Homeowner Referral Network (HRN) businesses like mine in their communities. I met with a business consultant, and we spent weeks systemizing every detail of my business, from answering machine messages and promotion to contractor commissions and invoicing. Six months later, I helped two people start HRNs like mine on Long Island and started referring jobs outside of my operating area to them. Once I realized that my business could be duplicated locally, I decided to market it nationwide and there are now 300-plus HRNs like mine operating across the country. About 80 percent of them are run by moms!

What's your advice for moms who are looking to start their own business?

Before starting any business, it's important to do some honest self-evaluation. Ask yourself, "What are my strengths and weaknesses? What am I willing to invest financially? How much time to I realistically have to devote to a new business?" Once you've evaluated your answers, make sure that the business you choose capitalizes on your talents and strengths, and seek out advisers and support staff that can support you in your weaknesses. Have a plan for the hours you will work and how you will support your family until your business starts to generate an income.

What sacrifices have you made as a mom and an entrepreneur to keep everything in balance?

That's a difficult question to answer because I think that the ultimate sacrifice I would have made was to stay in corporate America and not be at home on a day-to-day basis to raise my daughters. I guess, if I had to evaluate what I might have given up along the way, it would have been the opportunity to expand my business nationwide on my own and create a franchise, which probably would have generated a lot more money in the long run vs. helping people launch HRN businesses independently. In the end, though, I don't have any regrets.

What would you say are the most important skills and experiences you've brought from previous positions to being the leader of Home Remedies?

My dad was an entrepreneur, and I think I learned from an early age how to hustle and work hard. He taught me that you don't wait for someone to do for you, you take care of yourself. I guess his work ethic coupled with my passion for networking and helping people made my business a success. I also love decorating and renovating and get a vicarious thrill out of every project, even though it's not my own!

If you could have lunch with any business person/mogul/entrepreneur/nonprofit founder living or dead, who would it be?​

There are a lot of great choices both male and female, politically, socially and in business, alive and deceased, but I would have to say that I've always had an unwavering respect for the Dalai Lama. He embodies basic human values, ethics, the importance of fostering human happiness, harmony and kindness. I strive to preserve those values in both my professional and personal life. I'd love to hear his perspective on the world right now.

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